Alma Plaza plans shaping up

Pedestrian access, parking still of concern to neighbors

The latest site-design plan for Alma Plaza is conforming more to city wishes, according to Planning and Transportation Commission members who viewed the proposal Wednesday, but concerns about parking and pedestrian access remain.

"I can see a lot of thought and work went into this plan. [McNellis Partners is being responsive to the commissioners and councilors," Commissioner Samir Tuma said.

The 4.2-acre site on Alma Street and East Meadow Drive is set to include 27,720 square feet of retail/commercial and community space, including a 15,000-square-foot grocery store. In addition, 14 below-market-rate apartments are planned, plus 37 single-family residences and approximately 8,900 square feet of public parkland. The City Council had approved rezoning the land to accommodate the project in April, and the ordinance went into effect July 19.

Sheri Furman, representing Friends of Alma Plaza, said she thought the design is not friendly to pedestrians because the sidewalks throughout both the residential and retail areas are too narrow. She also said the retail areas are not integrated with the rest of the shopping plaza. Furman believes most of the problems stem from having too many houses in too small a space.

Dennis Mitrzyk said he does not believe the housing serves the neighborhood and is too high density. Mitrzyk said he is looking into pursuing a lawsuit to prohibit the change in zoning.

"This is unacceptable for someone who has used this neighborhood center for over 20 years," he said.

Other community members voiced concerns about potential parking issues. David van der Wilt, who works in a professional building south of the development, had concerns the design will cause parking problems for his staff. They currently use parking spaces in the Alma Plaza lot. He suggested permit parking in the plaza and in front of his building as a possible solution.

Rudy Batties, a resident of Emerson Street, behind Alma Plaza, said he liked the plan but was concerned with opening up Emerson as a pedestrian entrance to the plaza. He thought it would encourage people to park on the cul-de-sac. Seven other Emerson homeowners signed a document stating they do not want pedestrian access from their street.

The commissioners sympathized and mostly agreed with many of the community's concerns.

The only issue the commission did not agree on is creating an entrance to the plaza from Emerson. Tuma, like Batties, thought any sort of pedestrian entrance would encourage shoppers to park on the residential street, as did Commissioner Paula Sandas.

"We should take into account what the neighborhood wants," Sandas said.

But Commissioners Daniel Garber and Patrick Burt said they did not see a huge problem with including the entrance.

Like Furman, the commissioners thought the design is not user-friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians. Burt suggested turning some two-way streets within the complex into one-way, which would leave more room for bicycle and pedestrian pathways.

"One-way streets seem like they make way to utilize the land in other ways," Commissioner Burt said.

They suggested the planning department look into ways to address van der Wilt's concerns.

The commissioners also emphasized maximizing open space. Vice Chair Lee Lippert suggested making the housing semi-detached, rather than fully detached, and removing some parcel lines.

Chair Karen Holman said the park areas should be looked at again. A small triangular park area in the back of the project is detached from the main park in the center of the plaza.

"The park at the back doesn't seem to function very well," Holman said.

Other issues commissioners raised included varying the housing layouts and rethinking the locations of the retail buildings. Commissioner Arthur Keller recommended the grocery store and retail center be adjacent, so a customer could get a cup of coffee after doing grocery shopping without going through a parking lot.

On Sept. 12 the commissioners will continue discussing the design and make a recommendation to the City Council.

In other business, Holman was re-elected chair of the commission, and Garber was voted in as vice chair.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2007 at 11:25 am

I am not a local resident to Alma Plaza, but I think that not having a pedestrian entrance at the back makes little sense. I feel that so many people have stated that they want this Plaza to be community friendly, and it won't be unless there is a pedestrian entrance. Anyone who wants to go through with a stroller or bicycle should be able to get through, but the yellow stripes would stop grocery carts. Apart from this, there should be concrete posts to stop it being too wide, but designed so that cars would not find it desirable to park and shop.

Accessibility is key to making this work. We need to continue to make Palo Alto walking/bicycling friendly. More pedestrian walkways are needed all over the city. We have to encourage people to get out of their cars and out drive everywhere. A pedestrian entrance would help here not hinder it.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 10, 2007 at 12:11 pm

It seems ironic to me that people talk about walkable neighborhoods and user friendly developments, but when it comes to actually carrying it out there will always be a NIMBY group that will oppose it. I guess walkability and convenience are okay as long as it is not on Emerson Avenue.
It sounds like we are now in the "nitpicking" stage of the Alma Plaza redevelopment (13 years after the start of the soap opera). Let's see for how long "the friends of Alma Plaza" and others can tie up the actual start of building. Not to mention the threat of a lawsuit.

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Posted by Another Observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2007 at 12:05 am

Does the aprox. 15,000 sq ft grocery store have a basement storage area that uses one-half of this 15000 sq. ft.. ? Does anyone know? Is the reatil part only about 7500 sq. ft.?

If this is true it won't be a real grocery store, but just a high priced conveience place and not for real shopping.

Like this comment
Posted by Sheri Furman
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 11, 2007 at 10:25 am

As one of the "the friends of Alma Plaza," I don't believe we're trying to "tie up the actual start of building" nor are we the "nitpicking." Council sent the plans to the Planning Commission and ARB for site and design review, a normal part of any development process. As residents, the public has the right to comment on any design issues, the goal being to end up with the best possible design for the site. The Planning Commission (and staff) echoed many of our concerns. This commission is more than capable of thinking on their own. That their concerns and those of residents coincided is a result of actual design issues, not of them being swayed by the residents. Nor is anyone holding up the process; we're simply participating in it.

As for the grocery, of the 15,000 sq ft, 3500 of that will be for storage, so the actual grocery will be 11,500.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 11, 2007 at 2:49 pm

Thanks Ms Furman for your comments. I have been following the Alma Plaza saga for over a decade and I feel that there is a group of people who feel comfortable with Alma Plaza sitting empty and deserted--for the first few years it was "too much retail" complaint. then the group changed it's name and put forward new spokespeople (probably to hide the fact that it ws the same group stopping Alma Plaza development) and started complaining about "not enough retail". Now that we have the retail size figured out the group is "nitpicking" the project--no entrance on Emerson, streets too narrow, park in wrong location etc. etc. etc.
And if Ms Furman as you say "This commission is more than capable of thinking on their own" why are you poking your nose in from the Midtown area???
By the way the best possible design for the site would have been keeping it as all retail with a 30,000 square foot supermarket to anchor it--but we know that happened to that (yes, i know there has to be a level playing field in PA, i.e. no free market, so all groceries must be copies of one another).

Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 11, 2007 at 3:50 pm

>why are you poking your nose in from the Midtown area??? <
For that matter, why are you poking your nose in from Duveneck/St.Francis?

As a matter of fact, last week's objector from Emerson St. has previously testified in support of the current project. He isn't part of the thousand people who want a larger market. He kept saying it's a good project, go ahead. Now that his street is negatively impacted, they are concerned about an entrance to Emerson.
Hating residents and neighborhoods has led you into saying so many silly things.

Like this comment
Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2007 at 3:56 pm

I am not a local resident to Alma Plaza. I do miss the convenience of it. I occasionally used Albertsons when I needed something and it was handy on my way home. I did use Fandango Pizza. The one I miss the most is the British Food place, I loved the pasties and it was often a special trip to get them for a quick dinner.

So, I think that all of us in Palo Alto need to see Alma Plaza improved. I think that a vacant lot like that is a danger to us all as a place for drug dealing and other suspect activity. I feel sure that those in the neighborhood do not like having a derelict plaza next door to them.

I just want to see it happen soon. When you see how quickly Mountain View is getting Charleston Plaza ready and Michaels is opening soon, then it shows just how quickly things can be done. Please lets just get on with it and hurry up hurrying up.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 11, 2007 at 4:25 pm

Observer--why do you assume that putting a pedestrian entrance to the plaza on Emerson will negatively impact the people living on that street? Do you base it on the word of Rudy Batties? Does he have any studies that show that people will park on Emerson to use the plaza as opposed to parking on site?
As I said before it is ironic that people talk about "walkable neighborhoods" and "neighborhood serving centers" but are not willing to have pedestrian entrances to said centers.

Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2007 at 4:43 pm

Not so fast, I am not assuming anything. I am not involved in the plaza. I have no opinion about the entrance to Emerson.
I was just pointing out that your broad brush repetitive attacks on neighbors has led you to contradict yourself. Please, re read my posting.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 11, 2007 at 5:12 pm

Observer--not sure how I am contradicting myself, but i will leave that to your interpretation.
So my question is where did the term "his street is negatively impacted" come from. Is it your words to describe Rudy's comments or are you quoting Rudy? Either way how do you/he know that their will be a negative impact and isn;t Emerson Street the only street that you can put a pedestrian entrance on?

Bystander--Mountain View works differently they work fast and are open to big box stores in their city. PA would never approve a Charleston Center type shopping area--the usual complaints would arise--i.e. too much traffic, too much noise, big box stores will not agree to Palo Alto's "level playing field" rules (i.e. stored must be limited to a certain size so that they all can compete equally) etc, etc. BTW, the only reason we have a Fry;s in town is that they have been here for so long, these days the residents would object to a Fry's in PA

Like this comment
Posted by Phil Ritter
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 13, 2007 at 3:22 pm

I can understand the complaints from the people on Emerson, but I would not support retaining the blocked access to what will be left of Alma Plaza. There was a pedestrian/bicycle connection to Alma Plaza from Emerson for most of the thirty plus years I've shopped there. Yes, people used to park on Emerson (and Ramona), and a fence was put up some years ago after the residents complained loudly. However, I believe that public access and improved walkability needs to take precedence over the desires of a few people to have a private cul-de-sac. There should be strict enforcement against illegal parking (e.g. blocking driveways, which used to happen). Most of the homeowners knew they were buying on a street with foot access to the then larger and more active Alma Plaza when they moved there, and only those that have bought a house there in the last few years could have reasonably expected not to be impacted by living near a retail center. If shopper parking becomes a big problem, then the city could consider issuing free permits to residents (with hanging permits for their guests), rather than blocking public access.

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